It’s not often that the District Clerk makes front page headlines, but ours did late last week.
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel has not collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs since taking office in January because, critics say, it would hurt business for bail bondsmen who contributed to his campaign.
“He’s nervous about doing it because bondsmen supported him a great deal during his election so he wants cover,” said Judge Mike Fields, chairman of the county board that licenses bail bondsmen. “No individual or group of individuals should come before your obligation to the citizens of this county when you’re an elected official — no matter how tough it is.”
The court costs are generated by lawsuits filed against bail jumpers and bondsmen to have bail money forfeited after a defendant fails to appear for court.
Fields said not collecting the money during tight economic times was “baffling.” He said the court costs, now set at $8, are supposed to be about $230, a move that would raise more than $1.5 million a year for Harris County.
Fields said Daniel told him he did not want to “levy a tax” on bail bondsmen who contributed to his election.
Daniel acknowledged he has called the fee a “tax” because it raises the amount bail bondsmen charge defendants, but denied being influenced by more than $10,000 in campaign contributions from bondsmen.
He said he has been trying to untangle the changing law in order to set the correct fee.
“I don’t care who gives me what,” Daniel said. “The law comes first.”
If that were true then there would be no reason for this story. Clearly, the law has not been coming first.
Let me vent for a moment about Daniel’s lame attempt to deflect attention from his poor performance by labeling this fee a “tax”, because we all know that anything that’s a “tax” is bad and kills jobs and must be opposed by all right-thinking people. This particular practice has become so pervasive lately – see, for instance, every utterance of the phrase “rain tax” by opponents of Renew/Rebuild Houston – that as far as I’m concerned the use of it is an up front admission that you don’t actually have an argument against whatever it is you’re opposing. You’re just hoping to confuse the issue with stupid slogans and knee-jerk reactions. It’s particularly egregious in this case because the fee in question is actually a cost imposed on the defendants who don’t show up for their appointed court date. The bondsmen have to cover that cost in this instance, but they are then free to use whatever legal means they have to collect it from their client. If they have to eat some of those costs, that’s just too bad – that’s the nature of the business they’re in, as they know fully well. Failing to collect this money from them, which is owed to the people of Harris County to cover their costs, is forfeiting his duties as District Clerk.
Daniel also tries to make an equally lame argument that collecting these fees would somehow contribute to jail overcrowding. Given that these fees are only assessed on defendants who fail to show up for their appointed court date, I don’t see the connection. I would argue that it’s not collecting these fees that would contribute to keeping the jails fuller than they need to be. The point of them is to have some meaningful incentive to not skip on your court date. Seems to me that if a judge has a borderline decision about whether to cut a given defendant slack on bail or not, the knowledge that the defendant and his bail bondsman will be on the hook for some real money in the event of a skip would help push the judge towards allowing a more modest sum for bail.
Anyway. Daniel seems to realize that he hasn’t a leg to stand on. He admits that the law has been fully explained to him. How about we start collecting the fees, including the fees we should have been collecting all along, and move on? Thanks. Grits has more.